Gender and Football: What's the Difference Between Me and You?
Clutching the baton from Rob – who focused on ideas around masculinity in yesterday’s piece – Nicky Borowiec continues our gender-themed series of posts by reflecting on whether her experiences as a football fan have been shaped by her sex. Nicky can be followed on twitter here.
This isn’t the first time that I’ve been asked to write about my experience as a female football fan. Previously, I was approached to contribute an article with the subtitle “A Feminine Perspective” to another blog – for which I assume I was meant to describe how nice Graziano Pellè’s hair looks from my vantage point in the Kingsland (don’t worry ladies, I use an antiseptic wipe and put a doily down before taking my seat). I didn’t take part.
But during my “I can’t write this” chat with one of the editors of this blog a couple of questions were put to me – had I ever heard sexist comments at a match? what were my formative experiences of football like as a child? – and looking back I realised that imperceptible as it was to me at the time my experience and perception of myself as a supporter has been shaped somewhat by my gender. Back in 1989 when Dad first took me aged seven to Southampton games, female fans were thin on the ground and I could part the Milton Road crowd, who let me stand on my stool at the front to see over the barrier. I have no recollection of any negatives from those early days. Noise, yes. Men, lots. Scared? No. The only time I have actually been scared was an away game at Reading when we had to run from home fans throwing bricks. But in their defence, they weren’t targeting just the girls.
While I felt at home at the Dell, at school a girl who wanted to play football or swap football stickers with the boys was not welcomed easily into the girls’ fold. I got a lot of negative attention, left out of groups and teased. They had posters of Ryan Giggs and Jamie Redknapp on their wall; I had league table wallcharts. And the boys at that age weren’t interested in watching Saints; they just wanted to play being Lee Sharpe and swap stickers – and supported Man Utd and Liverpool. The one boy who did go to The Dell with his dad steadfastly refused to talk to me at school for fear his credibility would be lost forever. I’d have to make do with a slight nod on a Monday morning if we’d won that Saturday.
For my immediate family, however, it became the norm fairly quickly. Once Dad had adjusted to the fact that the additional programme bought at the ‘76 Cup Final for his future son would be lovingly looked after by his daughter that was that.
And so it continued through my teens and into adulthood, when maybe Dad thought I would find other places to be, and close (mostly) female friends rarely understood my hobby, but shrugged their shoulders and tolerated my lack of availability on Saturday afternoons. My dedication to my club remained unchanged, but some things were evolving.
Saints moved to a new stadium with 20 – TWENTY – female toilet cubicles for my block alone, compared to (from memory) a small block of 2 or 3 at The Dell for the entire stand. Hallelujah! People I meet no longer look like they need smelling salts when I tell them I am a season ticket holder and I find myself less likely to try to over-elaborate and ‘prove’ my knowledge these days. I used to (“Shall I tell you what formation the Dutch team used at the 2014 World Cup? Would you like to hear my thoughts on the false 9?”). The group of men I go to the match with listen to – and disagree with – my opinion as they do each other’s. I’m not quite so unusual any more, and that’s a very good thing.
More widely, we’ve seen the first female commentaries on MOTD (and people have mostly stopped complaining about it), Charlotte Green reading the classified results, and the increase of female owners, match officials, coaches and staff alongside the rise of the women’s game. I’ll admit that I don’t really watch much women’s football (a combination of lack of opportunity but mostly lack of time left after following my team), haven’t played aside from some work kickabouts since I was a child, and I’m not fussed if it’s Sian Massey or Darren Cann running the line. But I do care if Sian Massey gets abuse for her gender rather than whether she correctly calls an offside.
Which leads me to the bad news… At Southampton the gender-specific abuse aimed at our (then) new owner was shameful (expertly called by The Premier League Owl). We’ve also endured Richard Keys and Andy Gray, Malky Mackay’s “banter” and I have heard sexist abuse shouted at Sian Massey at St Mary’s. It still happens. It won’t change unless we stand up to it, so I challenge people when I hear it, as I do if I hear racist or homophobic abuse – but it saddens me that tackling sexism is still low priority. The masculine terrace culture prevails: hangover songs with lines like “when I was just a little boy…”, which I don’t sing (not least of all because I have no intention of violence towards the people of Portsmouth – may they return to a position where we can all enjoy a proper local derby again), and chants like “she fell over”. But although it’s mostly men (crowds are still mostly men), I’ve heard homophobic abuse and chanting from both genders, so I’m afraid I’m not convinced by the argument that more women and families in grounds have tempered the amount of unpleasant chanting.
Will it stop me going? No. But I’ll be delighted when Amy Lawrence is the MOTD pundit of choice instead of Robbie “you haven’t played the game” Savage, and when a female physio running onto the pitch during a match is met by the same indifference as their male counterpart.
But you see, I watch the same game as everyone else. I call the same bad decisions, give my opinions about formation and starting eleven with as much conviction as any supporter, and like you, I’ve never wavered in my devotion for my club. I just have to queue a little longer for the loo when I go and watch my team.